Unusual blockade ends in Nepal

Maoists lifted a week-long capital chokehold Tuesday.

Here in the capital of Nepal, residents are relieved that Maoist rebels have suspended an unusual, week-long blockade of their city.

The rebels announced a one-month reprieve Tuesday in response to requests from businesses, human rights activists, and ordinary citizens.

Over the past week, the Maoists had "enforced" their blockade by felling trees across roads and planting bombs. Sporadic rebel attacks left two people dead, and an attack 60 miles outside the city killed four soldiers.

But the insurgents were never a visible force surrounding the city; the threat to kill or maim drivers who dared enter was enough to keep most people off the roads.

"The Maoists tried to capitalize on the uncertainty in the minds of the people," says Brigadier Rajendra Thapa, a spokesman for the Royal Nepal Army. "We haven't seen a Maoist in the vicinity for six days."

Besides displaying their ability to intimidate citizens and squeeze the government, the rebels garnered significant international attention with their ploy. However, they failed to spark a hoped-for popular uprising in the capital, highlighting once again the deep unhappiness of most Nepalese with a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Rajman Pakhrin, a local Maoist leader, said last week that the blockade was meant to "provoke the people of the capital to launch an urban uprising.'' But the largest disturbance in Kathmandu during the siege was a half-day strike Sunday by the Maoist Victims Association, which represents 10,000 families displaced by rebel attacks.

Both the Maoists and the government of King Gyanendra say they are in favor of resuming peace negotiations that broke down in August 2003. "We have no preconditions for talks and expect the same from the other side,'' Deputy Prime Minister Bharat Mohan Adhikari told reporters Monday. But analysts say it is unclear that either faction is prepared to make the important concessions the other would need to begin a dialogue to end the civil war.

"Prospects of peace talks between the government and rebels that would lead to a political way out are becoming dim," the Nepali-language Annapurna Post said in an editorial Tuesday.

The Maoists began fighting in 1996, modeling their movement on Mao Zedong's communist revolution. They sat for negotiations last year after acknowledging a military stalemate, and shifted their public focus from global agrarian revolution to a new constitution, one that would limit or abolish the powers of the monarchy. Major land reform would surely be a part of the Maoist's demands, something the elites in this deeply feudal country resist.

"[The Maoists] say at this point they are fighting not for communism but for full-fledged democracy,'' says Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a human rights activist and former member of Parliament who helped facilitate the negotiations last year. "Through war they want one thing, through peace another, but the final goal is the same. They are still fighting for communism.''

King Gyanendra took power in 2001 after most of the royal family were killed by the crown prince in a palace murder-suicide. Gyanendra assumed executive powers and dissolved Parliament in 2002, effectively running the country with the support of the Army.

With more influence than the monarchy has seen since popular protests led to democratic reforms in 1991, it's hard to imagine Gyanendra agreeing to a process that could reduce him to the status of a figurehead.

"Only the king is ruling,'' says Dharma Raj Neupane, chairman of the Maoist Victims Association. "The party system is dead. The people are not represented.''

Nepal's political parties enjoy little power or popularity, thanks to decades of corruption and infighting. Nepal's main opposition party, the Nepali Congress, called for a unilateral cease-fire to bring the rebels to the negotiating table.

"The government must announce a cease-fire and hold talks with the Maoists to end the blockade and their revolt peacefully,'' Nepali Congress leader Narahari Acharya told the Reuters news agency Monday. "The government cannot solve the Maoist problem. It must resign immediately.''

In the face of such obstacles, "there's a deep sense of doom,'' says Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, an English-language weekly. "It's a very personal fatalism that everyone has.'' In the face of the rebel boycott, "people [were] too apathetic to even" stock up.

For all the international concern it generated, the highway blockade did not substantially affect daily life in Kathmandu. Politicians and the Kathmandu newspapers complained that the foreign press hyped the blockade, inflating the sense of crisis.

But many Nepalese, recalling the effects of an Indian trade blockade in 1990, had grown concerned that prices would spike had the rebels continued to choke the city for a second week.

While people and merchandise are once again flowing to Kathmandu, the violence and frequent strikes are expected to continue, further damaging the Nepalese economy and self-confidence.

"The government should have peace talks and soon," says Mohan Shah, who sells bruised apples and pomegranates from sacks strapped to his bicycle. "The country is running out of time."

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